Denver Development: What Will Happen to Emily Griffth School on Prime City Block?

Tonight, the Emily Griffith Foundation will host what it’s calling the Party of the Century in honor of legendary educator Emily Griffith, who founded Denver’s Opportunity School in 1916. That school is still going strong, offering an array of high-school and continuing-education courses that dwarf the three classes Griffith offered when she opened the original school.

And not to be a party pooper, but the celebration made me wonder what was happening to the building where Emily Griffith's ground-breaking program had operated for almost ninety years.

Griffith was a longtime Denver Public Schools teacher and two-time deputy state superintendent of schools who had a dream of starting a school that was open to everyone, regardless of age, income or previous education level. On September 9, 1916, that dream became a reality when Griffith opened the Opportunity School in an abandoned Denver Public Schools building in downtown Denver. From the start, the school lived up to its motto: “Public Opportunity — for All Who Wish to Learn.”

Operating as a free school within DPS, the Opportunity School attracted so many students that in the mid-’20s it moved into a brand-new building at 1250 Welton Street, where the word “Opportunity” was inscribed above the door. Over the years, it outgrew that space, too, and other buildings were added on the block to meet the growing needs of the community, even as the school itself added classes in new fields and expanded its English as a Second Language program to help immigrants and refugees from an astounding range of countries.

After Griffith retired in 1933, her name was added to the title of the school, which later split into the Emily Griffith High School and Emily Griffith Technical College. Last year, the high school opened in a new campus, a retrofitted high-rise at 1860 Lincoln Street. Some of the technical classes moved to the new space; others finished off the year in the building at 1250 Welton while a new home was set up at 1201 Osage Street; still others moved to 200 East Ninth Avenue. Today, the circa 1926 school is empty.

Back in 2012, when the DPS was rotating a lot of its real estate and the Emily Griffith move was already in the works, the DPS applied for a certificate of non-historic status for the building at 1250 Welton; if granted by the city, the certificate would have allowed for the building to be demolished, which would have paved the way for a major development on a prime city block. But then Historic Denver and others started advocating for a preservation solution, “given that the site is not only architecturally significant, but nationally significant for its association with Emily Griffith and the technical-college concept,” Annie Levinsky, head of Historic Denver, said at the time.

Last summer, Brad Buchanan, director of Denver Community Planning and Development, stepped in to help lead discussions on the future of the building; it’s by the Colorado Convention Center and just across the street from the Denver Performing Arts Complex, which is going through a "revisioning" process that will be the subject of some public discussions next month.

And in the meantime, what about the old Opportunity School? There’s still no word on the ultimate fate of the structure that played such an important role in an historic educational movement, but Levinsky says she’s “optimistic about a creative and collaborative outcome for the old site.” 

Questions about what that outcome might look like took me from the planning department to DPS to Emily Griffith to Jones Lang Lasalle Brokerage, which has had the listing on the property for a year.

JLL will likely take the property to market by the end of the first quarter, early second quarter this year; the firm will handle responses to the RFP from interested investors. And what about any possible historic designation, or any provisions that certain parts of the property be retained, or perhaps removed and then reused? That's up to the city and the DPS, which have not yet released those requirements.

The property that will be going on the block will be a full city block in one of the most desirable spots downtown. And the history it comes with? Priceless.

If you want to celebrate the life of accomplishments of Emily Griffith, find out more about the Party of the Century here. It starts at 7 p.m. tonight at History Colorado.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun